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The Great His­to­rian of Cul­ture: Christo­pher Daw­son by Russell Hittinger

The Great His­to­rian of Cul­ture: Christo­pher Daw­son

by Rus­sell Hit­tingerChristo­pher Daw­son

A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson by Christina Scott. With a new introduction by Russell Kirk, and a postscript by Christo­pher Daw­son: “Memories of a Victorian Childhood.”

Christo­pher Daw­son was the most il­lus­tri­ous Catholic his­to­rian of our cen­tury. He was per­haps the last of a breed of free­lance schol­ars and writ­ers (e.g. Hume, Gib­bon, and in our time, Rus­sell Kirk) whose great­ness was made pos­si­ble in large mea­sure precisely be­cause he avoided the nar­row and often petty con­straints of pro­fes­sional, aca­d­e­mic in­sti­tu­tions. Daw­son did not hold a full-time aca­d­e­mic post until he was nearly sev­enty years old, when he ac­cepted the Still­man Chair of Roman Catholic Stud­ies at Har­vard, where he lec­tured from 1958–1962. This bi­og­ra­phy, com­pe­tently and beau­ti­fully writ­ten by his daugh­ter, Christina Scott, is a fine ac­count of Daw­son’s life and thought.

Daw­son was born at Hay Cas­tle, in Wales, on 12 Oc­to­ber 1889. Built in the twelfth cen­tury, the cas­tle stood in a town that still had a Welsh-speak­ing pop­u­la­tion. From his mother, the daugh­ter of an arch-Protes­tant An­gli­can cler­gy­men, he learned a pietas to­ward the Welsh cul­tural and re­li­gious tra­di­tion. From his fa­ther, an An­glo-Catholic mil­i­tary of­fi­cer, he in­her­ited a re­spect for the Catholic tra­di­tion, to which Daw­son would con­vert in 1914. He would later write of his early child­hood in Wales: “In fact it was then I ac­quired my love of his­tory, my in­ter­est in the dif­fer­ences of cul­ture and my sense of the im­por­tance of re­li­gion in human life, as a mas­sive, ob­jec­tive, un­ques­tioned power that en­tered into every­thing and im­pressed its mark on the ex­ter­nal as well as the in­ter­nal world.”

Even in these early years we find one of the most dis­tinc­tive traits of Daw­son’s mind. Un­like many of the lights in the fir­ma­ment of the Catholic re­vival of the 1930s—e.g., Mar­i­tain, Gilson, Rous­selot, and Ronald Knox—Daw­son es­chewed ab­stract phi­los­o­phy and sys­tem­atic the­ol­ogy. Of course he re­spected these as im­por­tant ex­pres­sions of in­tel­lec­tual and sci­en­tific order. From the very out­set of his life, how­ever, Daw­son was drawn to the cul­tural, his­tor­i­cal, aes­thetic, and even mys­ti­cal el­e­ments of Chris­tian­ity. For ex­am­ple, we learn from the bi­og­ra­phy that his first lit­er­ary com­po­si­tion, writ­ten at the age of six, was an al­le­gor­i­cal story about “The Golden City and the Coal City”, which de­scribed a strug­gle be­tween Chris­tians and hea­thens. We also learn that when he went up to Ox­ford in 1908, quite for­tu­nately tak­ing as a tutor the Aris­totelian scholar Ernest Barker, Daw­son chiefly de­voted him­self to the study of lives of the mys­tics and saints rather than phi­los­o­phy.
Noth­ing, how­ever, was more for­ma­tive dur­ing his Ox­ford years than his read­ing of St. Au­gus­tine’sCity of God. Daw­son was im­bued with an Au­gus­tian­ian sense of his­tory as a moral and spir­i­tual drama. It was this sen­si­bil­ity, when com­bined with his train­ing in so­ci­ol­ogy and in the best meth­ods of his­tor­i­cal re­search, that ac­counted for Daw­son’s ge­nius. His two well-known es­says on St. Au­gus­tine, “The Dying World,” and the “City of God,” re­pub­lished in En­quiries into Re­li­gion and Cul­ture(1933), are, in my es­ti­ma­tion, un­sur­pass­able—both in terms of their sense of St. Au­gus­tine, and in their Au­gus­tin­ian sense of his­tory. If it is still pos­si­ble for some­one to be an Au­gus­tin­ian, Daw­son was the real item.

Dur­ing Easter va­ca­tion 1909, when he was nine­teen, Daw­son vis­ited the church of the Ara Coeli in Rome. Sit­ting on the steps of the Capi­tol, in the same place where Gib­bon had been in­spired to write The De­cline and Fall, Daw­son vowed to write a his­tory of cul­ture. Re­turn­ing to Eng­land, he even­tu­ally mar­ried Valery Mills and was re­ceived into the Catholic Church on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan­u­ary , 1914. Then began a lonely four­teen years of study in prepa­ra­tion for his pro­jected his­tory of cul­ture. It was a dif­fi­cult pe­riod be­cause Daw­son worked with­out a full-time uni­ver­sity post. In­deed, his first bid for such a po­si­tion, at the Uni­ver­sity of Leeds in the early 1930s, was re­jected be­cause of his Catholi­cism.

The four­teen-year pe­riod of ges­ta­tion bore ex­cel­lent re­sults. Be­gin­ning with his first pub­lished work, Age of the Gods (1928), a stream of pub­li­ca­tions would fol­low, in­clud­ing: Progress and Re­li­gion (1929), The Mak­ing of Eu­rope (1932), Spirit of the Ox­ford Move­ment (1933), En­quiries into Re­li­gion and Cul­ture (1933), and Re­li­gion and the Mod­ern State (1939), to men­tion only a few of the more promi­nent books. In these books, the gen­eral con­tours of Daw­son’s pro­ject be­came ap­par­ent. He con­tended (i) that re­li­gion is not a by-prod­uct of cul­ture, but is rather the an­i­mat­ing form of cul­tures world­wide, (ii) that the ca­reer of Eu­ro­pean cul­ture is to be ex­plained by a com­mon re­li­gion, that al­lowed the var­i­ous tribes and eth­nic in­ter­ests to tran­scend the ma­te­ri­ally lim­it­ing pres­sures of race, lan­guage, and prop­erty, and (iii) that mod­ern Eu­rope, hav­ing re­jected the Chris­t­ian re­li­gion, has de­volved into a racial and tribal mael­strom, con­trolled only by the ma­te­r­ial forces of tech­nol­ogy, eco­nom­ics, and armed force. Continue reading

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